Who are the British success stories that have gained the most traction on Spotify?
Jonas Blue (Virgin EMI) is the biggest new story in 2016. His growth is just incredible and he’s currently the 24th most streamed act in the world. After dropping “Fast Car” last year, he was achieving well over one million streams a day on Spotify, where he had really strong playlist support. We can get the ball rolling because there’s an editorial belief in something being good, but then we want to see the data and user behavior, and that’s what happened with Jonas. By April 8, “Fast Car” peaked at 2.53m streams on that single day, which is pretty phenomenal, and consistently drove over 1m streams per day until the middle of August. His follow-up, “Perfect Strangers,” featured JP Cooper (Island), who is another success story. Cooper’s current single, “September Song,” is getting over 300k streams a day thanks to playlist exposure, but also different recordings of the song and remixes. Then we had ZAYN’s “Pillowtalk” (RCA), which exploded on Spotify immediately on release at the end of January, hitting over 4m streams a day almost instantly, which is pretty much unprecedented.
What new acts are you seeing traction on?
Dua Lipa’s (Warner Bros. U.K.) story is moving rapidly; she is the 156th most streamed artist on Spotify in the world at the moment, which is a pretty amazing place to be after three singles. Perhaps a slightly less reported story is independent Irish act Gavin James, who is currently the 180th most streamed artist in the world on Spotify. He started with his cover version of Peter Gabriel’s “Book of Love,” which we started putting into Spotify playlists and got a really good reaction from the audience, with strong save rates and low skip rates. The track did tremendously on that front and is now at over 30m streams. His team at publisher Good Soldier Songs then took an interesting angle—which works really well on Spotify when you get it right—which is to get a remix of an existing track, in Gavin’s case “Nervous,” which dropped in June and has now had over 38m streams. The story began in America, but then went to the Nordics, European territories and the U.K. The Spotify story helped the track get radio play in the U.K. and elsewhere.
There’s also an interesting pop act called MiC Lowery (Polydor), five guys from Liverpool. Their single “Oh Lord,” which samples Phil Collins, is in both Hot Hits U.K. and Today’s Top Hits—the biggest playlists in the world—and is generating over 160k streams a day. That’s one to watch out for. An as-yet unsigned act we believe in, who has a great Spotify story globally, is Mullally. He has over 340k monthly listeners. Every time he drops new material, we test it out in our playlists, because we believe in him; he has a very distinctive voice. A few weeks ago, he peaked at 758k monthly listeners. This guy is going to end up having multiple hits.
Until you took the job at Spotify toward the end of last year, you were BBC Radio 1’s playlist boss. What’s the future role of radio when faced with competition from streaming services for both talent and listeners?
I have no question that Radio 1 is going to continue to have a strong role to play in helping to discover and break artists, but Spotify is out there now, championing music. It’s really about the diversity of the artists we can break, first of all. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a jazz, dance, indie, rock, pop or singer/songwriter act—there is a place for you on Spotify. The plan for our playlist portfolio is to make sure that we are nurturing, finding and helping artists in many different areas and spaces find their audience—and then growing them, enabling them to build new fans and pushing them further and further into the mainstream. I’m convinced that Spotify can enable more breakthroughs to happen than have probably ever been possible before, and we are starting to see the beginnings of that. I’m incredibly excited about Spotify’s ability to change the game and help artist discovery. Whilst we started to get the ball rolling this year from a U.K., perspective, I think next year is going to be a game-changer in terms of how we do it, with both emerging and existing artists.
I strongly believe in having a really great curation team that embodies the editorial voice of Spotify for any particular region. From the very beginning, my remit was to build a super-strong team of editors here. We’ve now got five people plus myself working in the U.K. on playlists. Austin Daboh came in and is one of the most respected people from the urban music space in the U.K. He knows everybody who works in music in the U.K. and is highly respected. He has two functions: being an ambassador on the ground, and launching new playlists. He took over Grime Shutdown, which now looks set to become a Top 10 playlist in the U.K. and is phenomenal. I’ve also brought in Sara Sesardic, who was working on a lot of shows at Radio 2. She covers contemporary pop as well as era- and genre-focused playlists. Dexter Batson, meanwhile, is looking after a lot of alternative-rock/indie playlists. He was on the Radio 1 music team but also served 18 months at 6 Music. He is well respected for his authentic voice in those areas of music and is doing a brilliant job.
What’s the strategy with playlists? You’ve just launched your first U.K. brand campaign which is all about playlists.
We are launching new playlists to fill gaps. Our ambition is to enable people to access music and create a soundtrack for their lives in a way that was never possible before. Whilst we are using algorithms to help drive that, our playlist portfolio is also a way of looking at the complex universe of music and trying to break that down into shows that make sense to people. Some of these shows are going to become brands, which differentiates us from other places to find music, enables discovery and makes life simple for the audience who love having strong curated brands that they can believe in. We’ve got ambitions I can’t really talk about too much now, but if you imagine how you might build a brand and then extrapolate it beyond being just on Spotify, that is a really key part of the future for us.
The music industry is global; how does British music maintain its identity in that world?
One of our challenges is maintaining a U.K. voice, because British musical culture historically has been without a doubt one of the strongest in the world, if not the strongest. There is no way Spotify wants to risk losing that. We take it really seriously, and we want to nurture and discover and help push U.K. music forward. The plan to build strong U.K. playlist brands is absolutely fundamental to that, and we are already starting to see the rewards. Every week, we’re launching playlists with the end goal of giving the U.K. a platform.
How important is it for you to maintain a good relationship with all facets of the music industry?
We are very consumer- and user-focused on one side, because if we aren’t keeping our core base happy, then why would they want to use Spotify? There are other places they can go. We’ve got to listen to what our users are telling us. But equally, we are very much in a partnership with the business; we want to be the best place for artists and labels to work with. We spend a lot of time speaking with the industry at every level, from indie right through to publishers and labels. Having been here nearly nine months now, the most interesting thing to me is that pretty much everyone that comes in goes, “Oh my God, the mad change that’s happened this year…” That’s driven by the growth of streaming, and goes right down to changes in A&R culture. The way that labels and artists release or develop music is changing and is going to continue to change.
New models are going to emerge, and we are right at the heart of that. One example of that is an unsigned Australian artist, Joel Adams, who at one point became the 55th most-streamed artist on Spotify in the world. I heard his track “Please Don’t Go,” thought it was phenomenal and tried it out in U.K. playlists. The reaction was ridiculous. So I sent it to my global peers, who supported it, and it flew straight away in Hong Kong, Singapore, and the U.S. In terms of save rates and low skip rates, it was competing with Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber. That’s just one example of how, if you are good, we are going to find you, and you are going to end up with a story you couldn’t have dreamt of.
There’s been a lot of talk about the fact that the U.K. charts have been slow this year. How do we measure success going forward?
How you measure success is a big issue for everyone at the moment, and I can’t give you a definite answer. However, what I’m tasked to do at Spotify includes breaking artists. We are currently figuring out what it means to break an artist. A factor in that is enabling an artist to make a living wage. So wherever they live, we want them to be able to do nothing but live and make music and not have to work in a cafe or as an Uber driver. That’s going to be an interesting new part of that equation.
The bigger story than that, though, in terms of numbers and charts, is that we are moving from a retail model to a consumption model. That’s the fundamental problem. At the moment, we are mixing oil and water. Downloads are in the old retail model and dwindling away fairly rapidly, certainly in the singles space, but albums too. In two years, streaming is going to be the only story in town when it comes to singles consumption. So how you measure success there is total numbers.
But what do you really want out of a chart? There is no doubt that the mass market wants an authentic view into what the most popular tracks in the market are at that point in time. For a while, the industry enjoyed using the chart as a way to break new material. When we are in the streaming world, you need to think about mixing those two things together in a way that’s still authentic enough that the public will actually care. That’s the real challenge. Personally, I think the fundamental need of the chart from a public perspective, which frankly is really the only thing that should matter, is what are the most popular tracks in the market at that point in time? If you look at the Top 40 Streaming Chart on Spotify right now, you’ve got a view into that world.
Final question: How can Spotify maintain its strong position in the streaming market when faced with big-budgeted competition?
It’s a few things. Firstly, never stop innovating, whether that be through new engineers that we recruit or the existing team finding and thinking about where this goes next. We launch things, we look at how users react to them and then we adapt and develop them. Spotify will always be a technology company at heart, which started with an innovative way to look at music and deliver it to an audience.
But in terms of where it goes next, there is no question that Spotify is going to become more and more of a content-based company. I can’t really tell you about some of our future plans, but if you think about where it takes you when you start thinking of yourself as a content company—and when you think about playlists becoming strong brands and what you do with that—that’s about as big a clue as I can give at this point. Platform innovation, tech innovation and content innovation are going to be some of the key drivers, as far as I’m concerned. Then it’s about recruiting the best talent to make sure that innovation happens. That’s why we’re going to stay ahead.
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